Wednesday, December 01, 2004

The Long Future of Oil
It's fashionable to talk about the coming Hydrogen Economy, and though I may often sound like a skeptic, I think that many of the elements of a hydrogen-based energy network could be in place in twenty years or so. However, an article about the petroleum potential of the deep Arctic waters got me musing about the long-term future of oil, which may be much longer than some expect.

If you extrapolate current oil production trends, by 2040 most of the conventional production in the US, Canada, and North Sea will be tapped out, and virtually every current producing country outside the Middle East will be in decline. Even if hydrogen (presumably generated by some non-fossil fuel source, such as renewables or nuclear) were to make major inroads into oil demand by this time, there would still be a need for significant quantities of oil, to supply those parts of the world that couldn't afford to make a transition to hydrogen, and for aviation, petrochemicals and other non-road demand sectors.

Saudi Arabia (assuming it still exists as a country 35 years from now; after all, it is only about twice that old now) should still be a major producer in 2040, as would Iraq and Iran. But would the world want to rely entirely on Middle Eastern oil, and could the Middle East by then cover even a diminished global appetite for oil? Where else might the oil come from?

That's where the potential described in the article on the Arctic comes in. By 2040, a substantial proportion of the world's oil--even if oil were well on its way to becoming obsolete--would have to come from unconventional sources, such as oil sands or heavy oil (see my posting of September 23.) In addition, resources that have yet to be identified, in ultra-deep waters (beyond the continental shelves?) or ultra-remote areas, such as the Arctic and Antarctic, would have to contribute materially to supply. That would raise all sorts of interesting questions about who owns the rights to those resources. Nor can one discount the possibility that in 35 years biotechnology and/or nanotechnology could either unlock the huge amounts of presently unrecoverable oil in abandoned reservoirs, or generate synthetic oil in large quantities.

Note that I haven't said anything about the price required for this to play out, or about the possibility of a truly superior energy technology, such as nuclear fusion. Barring such a development, and depending on the future attitude toward climate change and the long-term decarbonization of energy (which some claim is starting to reverse), oil could still be an important commodity well into the next century, and that implies some pretty exotic oil technology, rivaling anything the Hydrogen Economy has up its sleeve.

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